Jerry Falwell's systematic censorship at Liberty University is shocking — and bound to backfire
(OPINION) Liberty University has become an embarrassment to Christian college journalism programs with negative exposes emerging in World magazine last year and a piece this year in The Washington Post written by a former student journalist at Liberty.
We can’t blame the students who are attending the school hoping to learn and do journalism. We can’t fully blame the faculty who are trying to do their job and provide for their families. One has to blame leadership of that college who created such a dishonest climate for journalism education.
“University president Jerry Falwell Jr. is trying to turn the journalism program and the Champion, the campus newspaper, into a public relations training department,” noted blogger and author Rod Dreher, commenting on the World article.
The World article notes that, at one point in 2016, Falwell spoke to the newspaper staff and told them it was “established to champion the interests of the university, disseminate information about happenings on Liberty’s campus, as well as the positive impacts of Liberty in the community and beyond.” World reported that Liberty administration sees itself as publisher with rights to oversee editorial decisions and censor content. “We’re going to have to be stricter in the future if these protocols aren’t followed,” Falwell told the newspaper staff, according to World.
Dreher is correct. Liberty’s student newspaper is engaging in public relations, not independent journalism. One can argue that every publication is subject to the influence or control of its owner, shareholders or advertisers. While that’s often true, it’s also true that Liberty’s approach to its student newspaper is lousy journalism and thin-skinned administration.
The British journalist and Christian apologist Malcolm Muggeridge once said, “News is anything anybody wants to suppress; everything else is public relations.”
Some might wonder if we are seeing a movement toward censorship and control of media, similar to the way nationalism and authoritarianism is on a temporary march in the world, putting the rise of democracy in a temporary holding pattern.
Christian colleges should take the lead in advocating for free speech and freedom of the press on their campuses and in public life. They should oppose autocratic control of student press and mainstream press. If a Christian college in America offers a journalism major, it must commit to teaching journalism and allowing students to do real journalism. That means trusting the adviser to guide the students. It means tolerating stories that occasionally ruffle feathers or even rock the campus.
Certainly, advisers and journalism professors have a tough and vital job. We must often show students when an opinion piece is slanderous or poorly aimed. We have to encourage fact-based reporting rather than whining and opining. And with fact-based reporting, we have to encourage thoroughness, depth and high ethical standards. We need to teach students how to practice “slow journalism” and wise journalism in an era of fast and, occasionally, loose journalism. At Christian colleges, we do also care for the souls of the students and want to encourage them to think as Christians as they approach news and information.
That’s hard work. And it’s better for the institution than the alternative. What happens when a college president has a dictatorial bent? What happens when he or she attempts to intimidate or muzzle the campus press?
The word spreads about the president’s behavior and the institution’s approach (case study: Liberty) and bad public relations follows, damaging the school’s brand.
Good faculty depart.
Smart parents and students choose other colleges.
Employers are wary of hiring students from such a school.
Students who are unaware of the fraudulent program arrive on campus and become disillusioned. The enterprising ones open their own independent press on a web site, a Facebook page or Twitter feed. Authoritarians cannot block speech, facts or truth.
It’s a bad testimony if presidents of Christian schools are hypersensitive, media illiterate and believe the press on their campus should function like the press in Venezuela. Christian colleges need to champion the educational value of journalism programs and of a robust student press. Student-run news outlets at Christian schools should consider gaining more independence from the school. (At King’s, where I work, the student news outlet – The Empire State Tribune – is an independent outlet with outside funding in addition to funding from the school.)
The dissident playwright in the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, in his essays and plays taught his fellow citizens how to “live in truth” even while living under an oppressive communist regime. He was put in jail for that. But when the authoritarian regime fell, he was made president of the Czech Republic. Christian colleges shouldn’t be in the business of creating dissident students and faculty. They should practice living in truth.
This piece was co-published with Newsweek.
Paul Glader is an associate professor of journalism at the King's College in New York City and executive editor of Religion Unplugged. Follow him on Twitter @PaulGlader.